It can be a scary time to be growing up. Children are constantly exposed to the news and world events because it’s at our fingertips. And they have much easier access to devices then we did when we were children. My kindergartener was issued an iPad on his first day of school! And all this information that they’re exposed to during the day can lead to some bedtime anxiety around sleep.
Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.
Now some level of anxiety is healthy. On some level we do need to access threats and risks around us to keep us safe. But this can be a challenge for children to manage, especially as they’re laying down to sleep at night.
As a pediatric sleep coach, I’m not seeing that it just effects one specific age group. I’m seeing anxiety around sleep with young toddlers, preschoolers and elementary school aged children. Is there anything that we can do as parents to help manage this anxiety around sleep in our children? Yes, there is! I’m going to walk you through my top 5 strategies to manage bedtime anxiety with children.
Managing Bedtime Anxiety with Play
Playtime during the day is one of the best things a child can do to help manage nighttime anxiety around sleep. And their playtime should include both high energy physical playtime and more calming play activities during the day.
I really like to get children moving and playing throughout the day. And really get their heart rate going. High energy games and movement helps to release endorphins to help put a smile on your child’s face. It also helps to release tension that might have developed during the day.
A really good CD for preschool age is the Sticky Kids Warm Up! It has fun music to follow along to and get the body moving.
Another fun activity for younger children to help get their body warmed up and moving could be doing head, shoulders, knees, and toes together.
Any exercise is good exercise. But I really encourage you to do some high energy games or activities during the day. This could be as simple as your child jumping on the trampoline for a while, going outside for a fun bike ride together, or playing Red Rover. You can really use your imagination here.
For toddlers, just wrestling and roughhousing with you can be a great physical activity for them. I find it’s especially important for toddlers to be getting enough physical playtime in during the day. The reason is because they’re often still taking that good nap in the middle of the day. And they’re just not having enough physical playtime activity in both the morning and the afternoon. And if your toddler has a lot of pent up energy at bedtime, it’s more likely than not going to make it more challenging for them to fall asleep.
High energy games and activities are also a great way to help your child to get social interactions during the day when they play with other children. It also helps to develop their self esteem and confidence.
How much physical playtime does your child need? I recommend at least somewhere between 45 – 90 minutes to high intensity play during the day. And if you can break that physical playtime up between morning and afternoon, that’s even better.
Calming Play Activities
And while high energy activities are so important to get the blood moving and really helping your child get their energy out during the daytime, it’s also important for them to have some calmer playtime activities as well. Calmer playing activities could include crafts, make believe play, or playing with toys like Legos or dolls.
Sometimes with older children, I actually find that they aren’t getting enough calming activities during the day. Some children are very involved with afterschool sports activities where they get quite a bit of physical activity. They may be in softball, soccer, ballet, gymnastics, etc. And for these children, they may not need to do as much of the high energy games when they’re at home. Because these children have already had a good amount of that during the day. Instead, they may actually need more calming games in their day.
And if you’re able to spend a little time with your child doing any of these higher energy games or calmer playtime activities, your child is absolutely going to love that. I call this “special one-on-one time” with my children.
Another wonderful activity you can introduce into your child’s day to help them manage bedtime anxiety is stretching. This could be doing yoga. But it’s really just simple stretches. If you’re looking for specific ideas, I recommend another great song from The Sticky Kids called Bend and Stretch. They have their own YouTube channel but too.
On the other hand, if you’re wanting to read a book to your little one to get you doing some stretches together, I recommend on called Rachel’s Day in the Garden.
The benefits of doing some stretching is that it promotes balance and mental calmness. It improves circulation and can even boost your child’s immune system. Tension and stress can also be released as the muscles get nice and warmed up with some good stretching.
Yawning is even a stretch. I like to get parents do a yawn in the bedtime routine. Because if your do, your child will too. Why? Because a yawn is contagious.
Download Your Free Sleep Guides
Touch is an absolute no brainer to have in your child’s bedtime routine somewhere. There are really fun and easy ways of introducing touch into the bedtime routine, or into the day, without overwhelming your child.
One of my favorite books of all time is called Once Upon a Touch by Story Massage. They provide 10 key strokes that you can use that to tell a story on your child’s back. As an example from that book, you can do Hickory Dickory Dock as a form of touch.
Have your child lay on their tummy on their bed. You can run your fingers up your child’s back as the mouse is running up the clock. You could use your fingers to make a big circle on your child’s back to indicate the clock. And then again using your fingers to go back down your child’s back as the mouse runs down. You don’t have to do a full massage. Children just love touch when you’re doing it to a story.
How Touch Decreases Anxiety
Touch can also teach your child respect because you would ask them “would you like me to do Hickory Dickory Dock on your back tonight?” You’re getting permission to touch them. And that’s a good conversation starter to teaching them all about someone saying no. And teaching them how to respect others if they do say no.
But the biggest reason that I love feel is because it gets that wonderful hormone oxytocin flowing. Within 40 seconds of giving or receiving touch, a person get that oxytocin rush. And that’s a wonderful feeling of love to have just before bedtime.
The other book I found quite helpful for getting some touch into the bedtime routine is one from Susan Quayle called Mouse’s Best Day Ever. This book is basically reflexology for children and also really fun.
You know your child well. And touch may not be the best approach for them. For example, if your child has a sensory processing disorder, they may not respond well to touch. But for others it may be.
Everybody knows that doing some deep breathing can help us feel calm. With children, it can be a little bit more complicated, especially if you’ve got young toddlers. Trying to get them to do some kind of special breathing can be a little bit tricky. To practice breath work with your child, you can use spheres, feathers, or bubbles. You can actually use bubbles in a bath even.
You can buy a Hoberman sphere for your child to practice this step. And you would ask your child to breathe in through their nose and then release slowly through their mouth. Show them with the sphere how their lungs move like the sphere. Extend the Hoberman sphere so it’s a big circle. Tell your little one that’s what is happening in their body when they take that deep breath in through their nose. Then slowly push it back in together so that the sphere collapses. And that’s what it’s like when we release the breath through our mouth
And you can use the sphere to regulate the pace of your child’s breathing, how fast or slow the air goes in and out. Kids love mimicking breathing with the sphere.
Feathers, bubbles, and pinwheels can work well for breathwork as well.
Benefits of Breath Work
You can even practice breathing without using any props. Have your little one think about blowing out candles on a cake. Or have them practice some tummy breathing. This is a similar exercise to practicing with the Hoberman sphere, but instead of using it, your kiddos can just put their hand on their tummy. They can just feel the air going in and coming out and watch their tummy going up and down.
The benefits for doing some nice relaxing breathing are that it calms the nerves, can help to reduce anger, anxiety and stress.
We used to use Daniel Tiger in our house last year when my son was four. He just loved it. They talk you through how to take a deep breath in, count to four, and then breathe out again. And that strategy really helped him when he was upset.
Affirmations & Visualizations
Affirmations can be a great way for children to reduce bedtime anxiety. Some affirmations might include things like I am strong. I am calm. I am happy. During Covid times, a lot of children in our city would paint rocks and put them in their yard or around walking trails. Some of the rocks would have affirmations or pictures. And that was a great thing for children.
Another one that we’ve done in the summer time is with ice cream. So instead of calling them “cookies and cream” or vanilla, we gave them positive affirmation names like strong, calm, happy and let the kids pick out which affirmation they wanted with their ice cream. And my daughter really loved that.
Sometimes your child actually believes that they can’t sleep well. You can really get them to think about how to change that mindset. Instead of thinking “I can’t fall asleep,” think “I can fall asleep. I will fall asleep. I am a good sleeper.”
Visualizations, meditations, and using their imagination to relax can also be helpful. They can visualize relaxing their muscles. You can have your child like pretend that their body is like chocolate and they’re melting into the bed.
However, some children may not respond will to imaginary visualizations. For example, children who are on the spectrum, may need more literal visualizations.
Benefits of Affirmations & Visualizations
Benefits of using affirmations and visualizations are positive thinking and promoting deeper and better sleep. However, from my own experience helping thousands of families to get their child sleeping well, I can tell you that just doing these first 5 steps alone without proper sleep hygiene and independent sleep, probably won’t fix your child’s sleep. But having the right combination can make all the difference.
Some parents feel a little bit overwhelmed trying to implement all these tips at once. You don’t need to. You can start with just a few and then add in more as time goes on and your child begins to master one of two of these.
Managing Bedtime Anxiety
Let’s shift into some more specific things that we can do to help children deal with bedtime anxiety. Parents can use the concept of a Worry Tree to understand their child’s fears and anxiety. A Worry Tree is just picture of a tree with a bunch of different branches. Your child can just write on all the branches what worries they might have.
The thought is that your child is acknowledging that there’s some bad things going on in their lives or that they’re feeling a bit stressed out by.
And if they can just acknowledge those feelings and get it down on paper, then it’s not in their head anymore. Or if your child is too young to write, they can drawing a picture to get that worry out of their head.
Others use a Worry Eater. This is when young children can write down their worry or draw picture and put it inside the Worry Eater. And it eats that worry overnight. And now that worry is gone forever.
With that worry eater, you would need to get that paper out overnight so that it’s not there in the morning. It’s a similar concept to the Tooth Fairy.
You can even make your own if you want. Make that worry eater out of a cereal box or other box. Open it and decorate it all up. And just put your child’s worries is in there.
This idea of writing down your worries and anxieties can work well for us as adults too. When I get bit overwhelmed, I just write out a list of all those thoughts to get those things out of my head. That way I don’t need to hold on to it anymore.
Creating Bedtime Boundaries
Boundaries, including consequences, is one of the most important elements of creating an anxiety free bedtime for children. Boundaries help children to feel safe and secure. Children need to know where they stand and what’s expected of them.
When boundaries around bedtime are gray and begin to shift, children begin to feel more insure. And that insecurity brings on more bedtime anxiety with children. So talk to your child about what behaviors are okay and what aren’t at bedtime. Is it ok for them to continue asking for more and more stories? Can they get you to come back into the room if they ask for another glass of water?
And I saved the best for last…consistency. Consistency is the number one thing that helps children manage anxiety at bedtime. Children like to know what’s going on. The bedtime routine acts as a queuing system that they’re going to end the routine in their bed and will be falling asleep.
So create a consistent bedtime routine. Remain consistent with the boundaries that you set. If your child isn’t staying within the boundaries, then implement a consequence.
Again, if you think a family is going to get overwhelmed by telling them all about the 7 steps, then just tell them about one or two things and have them do it consistently. It’s better to do one or two things consistently then try and do all seven things inconsistently. Because that’s just gonna cause anxiety for the parents as well.
Teaching Your Child to Sleep Well
If your child struggles with anxiety around bedtime or sleep, I want you to know that is absolutely possible to get them falling asleep happily and easily at bedtime AND getting them to sleep through the night. you can absolutely help them learn the skills to be an awesome little sleeper. And the good news is that you don’t have to leave your baby or child alone to child it out. You can actually be present as supportive as they learn how to master the skills to a restful sleep.
But if you’re not sure how to do so, that’s what I’m here for. I work with families all over the world teach their children how to sleep through the night and take restful daytime naps using gentle sleep training methods. And I’d love to help your family achieve your sleep goals too.
Let’s hop on a free Sleep Evaluation call so that I can learn a little more about what your child’s sleep struggles are and see if my program is a good fit for your family.